Selling 'St. You Decide' Religion: An Episcopal priest in Walkersville has launched an ad campaign aimed at those who have been turned off by religion, and he is finding success: His congregation is growing.

August 03, 1998|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

To attract baby boomers and generation X-ers to his new congregation, the Rev. Gene Bolin is trying something unorthodox and sharp-edged -- something a few even regard as irreverent and sacrilegious.

The Episcopal priest in Walkersville has launched an advertising campaign targeting the hard-to-get -- people who have been turned off by religion or never embraced it to begin with -- and speaking to them in their language. And Pastor Bolin, as he prefers to be called, is getting results.

The congregation has grown to 100 followers in less than a year and has received national media attention.

Bolin's most controversial poster, which has the full support of the Episcopal diocese, features a Renaissance-style image of the crucifixion, superimposed with a graffiti-like message that says: "Of course people with pierced body parts are welcome in our church."

"We did not intend to be sacrilegious or irreverent or make good church folks angry," said Bolin, 58, who has been in the ministry 34 years.

"We wanted to package the message in the way that was most compatible and would be understood by the target group. We knew there were risks, and we said we weren't going to turn back."

The poster didn't sit well with Paul Prentice of Adamstown, who couldn't believe what he was seeing when it appeared on the community bulletin board of his local grocery. He complained to the store, then talked to Bolin on the telephone. He wrote to Bishop Robert W. Ihloff, who heads the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

In that letter, Prentice wrote: "For me the poster's message, superimposed on the pierced body of Christ, denigrates the most sacred moment in the life of Christ and the Church to the level of the flip and frivolous which pervades American culture today, in particular, the advertising media."

Ihloff said he does not consider the poster offensive or inappropriate.

"I do not personally find the poster sacrilegious in any way," he said. "It certainly is provocative and eye-catching. Its intent is to get people to think. It simply says: 'This is a church that is open to all kinds of people.' "

Overall, Bolin says he has received about 70 calls or comments supporting the campaign and about eight complaints, in addition to Prentice's letter.

As nontraditional as the campaign may seem, the Walkersville church, which does not yet have an official name, is not alone in taking a radical-style approach.

The Rev. George H. Martin, who is vicar at an Episcopal church in Eagan, Minn., founded the Church Ad Project 20 years ago, a company that provides advertising to churches, because he saw a need.

"I was in a church that was dying," said Martin, then a priest at St. Luke's Episcopal in Minneapolis. "I did 187 funerals in 11 years. We needed new blood. We needed new people walking in the door."

The Church Ad Project is a company he runs with his wife that provides advertising to a wide variety of churches for a minimal fee -- just raised from $30 to $35 an ad. In the years since he founded the company in 1978, Martin says he's provided ads, which are created by advertising agencies, to thousands of churches across the country ranging from Roman Catholic to Southern Baptist to Lutheran.

Martin, 55, has seen and likes the ads being used by the Walkersville church.

"They're doing what you've got to do in this day and age to stand out and to be talked about," he said.

The pierced body parts ad pushes the envelope, Martin admits. "In some ways that ad goes more to the edge than we have done in some time," he said.

But one of Martin's newest ads may not be far off. The ad shows the inside of a car and a steering wheel. The text is: "You say his name often enough on the highway. Why not try saying it in church? You'll feel much better using the Lord's name in prayer. Not in traffic. Worship this Sunday."

Hand-picked leader

For the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, which includes most of the state except four counties around Washington and the Eastern Shore, the Walkersville church is the first new one in about 30 years, Ihloff said.

The diocese picked Bolin from about 20 candidates from across the nation. This marks the fifth church Bolin, a Baltimore native, has planted -- a job his father did before him for the Baptists.

Bolin, who reads the 139th Psalm first thing each morning, is convinced that God is involved in all that he does, including the advertising campaign: "I have to believe that the spirit of God was deeply involved in the creative process."

The focus of Bolin's campaign is a group of about 10,000 people who live in and around Walkersville. In his mind, the pastor thinks of them as "happy little cynics," driving up and down the road in their BMWs and minivans -- not involved with any church.

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